Friday, July 15, 2016

Child of Light: Combat and Progression

This Child of Light series has seen plenty of genteel discussion so far. We’ve spent some time admiring the serene beauty of the visuals. Whisked ourselves away to the soft and atmospheric soundtrack. Carefully and thoughtfully dissected the root problems within the writing. That’s all well and good. But the obvious follow-up question any sane person would ask: When do we get to the gruesome murder? That’s right, stuff away your pacifism you non-gender-conforming-deragotry-word-implicating-you-as-weaklings, it’s time we talked about the combat.

I really like the combat in Child of Light, except when I hate it with intensity unmatched by mortal men. This dichotomy is also present in the game’s RPG progression, albeit to a much subdued degree. In an effort to pace things properly and give you time to clean the bile spewing out of your monitor, we’ll be alternating on the good and bad. Think of it as eating a delicious ice cream cone in a flavor of your choice, then intermittently washing it down with a forkful of dumpster treasure and insect chitin. Now that I’ve whetted your appetite and fully convinced you how great this idea is, let’s launch right in!

Combat: The Good

Child of Light features a mix of real-time and turn-based combat. However, it’s different from most hybrids of this sort by not being godawful. When a character gets a turn, the action is completely paused. Not any of that “cinematic” malarkey where time slows down to varying degrees. Not any of that Final Fantasy fiddle-faddle where you can only gather your thoughts in certain sub-menus. Not any of that real-time-with-pause tomfoolery in games like Dragon Age where you have to choose when to sheepishly break your own immersion. This game weighs down on the breaks with a massive steel girder and doesn’t take it off until you’re good and ready.

We wait our turn around here like CIVIL monsters.

There’s a bar at the bottom of the screen where you and the enemies all hang out, share a round of drinks and murder each other. Metaphorically speaking. The last section of the bar is the time between selecting an action and it activating. If you or your enemies are hit in this space, you get interrupted and knocked back about halfway down the bar. Characters have different speeds and different actions take varying lengths of time, so there’s strategy to be had in when you can pull off your fancier moves.

I mentioned back when discussing Bravely Default that the mark of a good combat mechanic is how all-encompassing it is. If one relatively simple mechanic ties into everything decision you make in battle, then it’s a fantastic mechanic. The time/interrupt system in Child of Light scores well by this metric. Every action you take, you need to stop and consider: Can I interrupt one or more of the enemies with this? Can they interrupt me? Would it be better to postpone this action until a time where my schedule isn’t clogged with meetings and savage spider bites?

This brings me to another point: Defending. The ability to block is useless in most turn-based games, bar the specific moments when That One Boss charges up his super laser. In Child of Light, defending not only reduces damage (and a fair amount when upgraded), but it prevents interrupts and lets your next turn come twice as fast. Given how much interrupts delay things, this means defending can let you act in the same amount of time, if not faster, all while taking less damage. I chose the guard command more in Child of Light than any other turn-based RPG I can recall. This is undoubtedly a good thing, because it nets a ton of tactical use out of an extremely simple mechanic.

You know what they say: The best defense is a good, uh...tutorial prompt? Aw yeah, I am just nailing these image captions today.

The system lets you juggle enemies, interrupting them over and over so that they die before getting a hit in. This becomes increasingly difficult with more enemies and they start using speed-altering skills (again tying into the interrupt system). All the same, it’s nice to have a perfect/no-hit victory to shoot for, as it keeps regular battles more interesting.

Adding an extra layer of depth is your firefly companion. If click-and-hold over an ally, he’ll slowly heal them over time. If you do so over an enemy, it will slow that enemy down on the time bar. Both actions eat up his succulent firefly juices, which can be replenished by glowing plants both inside battle and out. The plants are something of a contrivance. They regenerate after waiting a while, so it’s basically the same as having passive regeneration with added busywork. It’s also a bother that the healing can’t speed up when the action is halted for someone’s turn. I frequently found myself waiting several seconds to burn all my juice on healing, so I could snag a plant and spend the real-time portion on slowing an enemy. All these quibbles aside, it’s great that you have a way to alter an enemy’s speed between turns. It adds a lot of quick moment-to-moment decisions as you try and keep the pipeline of baddies balanced.

There are a couple other odds and ends that work to the combat system’s favor. For one, items are all percentage-based. Healing, stat buffs and so on are never set values. I think set values have advantages sometimes. They give your items more tiers of value, useful for loot distribution. They also interact differently with certain party members. For example, weaker party members get more benefit from set healing items than percentages, which makes it easier to heal those who need it most. All that being said, percentage-based items cut down on needless complexity and ensure that what you pick up early on doesn’t have an expiration date. Set-value items become useless if you save them, which can be irritating when you’re a hoarder. Which type of item is better depends on what the game is designed for. But ultimately, I think the pros of percentage-based items are better suited to shorter games like this one.

Another neat detail is that switching party members is a free action, and experience is shared amongst all of you. I’m in full support of this, as games that do otherwise always either end up with dull grind or useless party members. It also leads to party members with specific or limited utility (like mages whose spells you want to save) falling behind on the level curve. Sure free switching makes games a bit easier, but that’s something you can easily compensate for in the enemy design. Though speaking of enemy design, it’s about time we got to…

Combat: The Bad

Child of Light has a few nice ideas for enemies. Some baddies speed themselves up, buff themselves up, or slow one of your party down. All of these require planning around. Child of Light also has standard ideas for enemies. Use of a basic element system ensures that you can target specific enemies with specific weaknesses. Every other idea Child of Light has for enemies? Garbage. For all that its base combat system is great, Child of Light has no idea what to do with its foes in the second half of the game.

Well, apart from putting them against magnificent new backdrops.

Let’s start with how it botches defense and magic defense. In general, games struggle with these stats. Assuming they even think past “it’s tradition”, I imagine the main rationalization of splitting attack/defense stats is twofold: You can have enemies suited to certain party members and allow specialization into bursts of damage versus consistent damage. One way typical RPGs unthinkingly sabotage this is by having little to no enemies with differing defenses. Sure they’ll throw a barely perceptible boost to defense or magic defense here or there but for the most part it’s pointless to think about.

Child of Light takes things way too far in the other direction. Many enemies, especially in the late game, have obscenely high defense or magic defense. We’re talking one damage type doing a tenth of the damage of the other. By the end of the game, over half the foes you encounter require a specific damage type. One reason this is irritating is there’s no way to predict who has these immunities until you waste a turn slicing 7 out of 600 health on a new enemy. It’s also frustrating to be frequently required to burn through a limited resource. Other games could get a little more use out of magic defense, but that doesn’t mean I want the whole game to be Final Flantasy.

The real downside, however, is that Child of Light didn’t bother to properly balance magic.

There is exactly one dedicated offensive caster. The main character, being the typical jack-of-all-trades, can specialize in magic if you choose. None of your five other party members know a single offensive spell. A couple of them use the stat for healing spells, and for the remaining three it’s literally worthless. Magic attack shouldn’t have been a stat at all in this game. They should’ve just called it “Power” or something and had it apply to all damage types. Characters all have distinct basic attacks with different base damage, so they could simply lower the mage’s to compensate. I’m sure the inclusion of magic attack was more thoughtless tradition than anything, but that type of thoughtlessness is the difference between okay combat systems and great ones.

To make matters worse, there are basically no other ways to deal with magically-weak enemies. Other games have things like piercing attacks, set-damage moves, stat debuffs, status ailments, damaging items, something. The reason it’s terrible in Child of Light is that there are basically no options here. You either have the one caster use a spell, or screw you this fight is gonna take forever. There’s no strategy here. Even resource management is harmed as much as helped, because if you absolutely need MP for certain enemies you’re going to stop yourself from ever using it elsewhere.

Aw yeah, look that awesome spell! Slightly less awesome when it takes a fifth of my entire mana pool...and I’m forced to use it every other fight.

The other ways enemies differentiate themselves aren’t much better. Some enemies can revive others. I can handle buffing, even healing, but reviving? Typically when an enemy starts dishing out healing you have to choose between targeting the healer or focusing down the other foes too fast for it to matter. When a baddie can bring someone back from any threshold it once again narrows your options: You have to kill it first. When there’s only a single sensible choice, the strategic possibilities aren’t deepened. It’s just annoying.

The other twist later enemies reveal is counters. Some enemies counter a specific type of damage, physical or magical. It’s extremely frustrating because, just like with defenses, there’s no way to tell it’s coming until you’ve been gifted a free punch to the face. But I can’t even be bothered to moan about those, because the third type of counters is far, far worse.

Some enemies counter interrupts.

When you deal damage to them at the proper time and delay their actions, they punish you for it.




Who thought this was a good idea? Why did they think it was a good idea? Your idea for mixing up the combat is to take the most interesting and novel thing about the combat system, the core that you’ve based all sorts of abilities and mechanics on, and remove it? Except not even that! You’re keeping in this neat thing, then smacking the player whenever they try to do it. The first time you encounter any enemy with this ability, you are literally punishing the player for doing what they are in all other contexts encouraged to do, without them having any way of knowing this would happen! What on earth does this add to the game that’s worth making the player feel cheated like this?

I’ll tell you what it adds: Sometimes, after gaining foreknowledge through pain, you have to wait for enemies to hit you. Even though it’s not worth the flaws, I’ll begrudgingly admit there’s at least some strategy in planning around this. Or at least I would, were it not for the fact that the game already has a status where a target can’t be interrupted! Y’know something that produces the exact same effect, but with less frustration and misery! Screw you! ARGH!!!

So the gist is that I don’t like it.

Here’s another intensely gorgeous screenshot to lighten the mood enough so that I’ll forget about the GOD DAMN INTERRUPT COUNTERING BULL-I should stop talking.

On a final note, boss design is mediocre. Not visual design, obviously. But many bosses in the game feature a form of difficulty I’m not particularly fond of: They throw in regular enemies with the boss. Though this can work in battles tailored to it, such fights are often flawed. The most common reason is because they can be very binary: Either you or the supporting enemies will soon be dead, and it’s the difference between so-easy-it’s-boring and so-hard-it’s-frustrating. Child of Light often has this issue, but the previous problems compound things into a massive wriggling mess of intersecting awfulness.

Some bosses can revive their minions all they want at no penalty, making it pointless to target them first and forcing a sort of DPS race out of the fight. Many of the minions/bosses are nigh immune to one damage type, drastically restricting your options and creating a lot of annoyance since this is the worst place to waste turns on trial and error. Speaking of wasted turns, many minions and even bosses themselves counter based on damage types or interruptions. The resulting battles are frustrating slogs that all feel the same and aren’t difficult so much as they are consistently aggravating.

After about halfway through? This is every single boss fight.

Progression: The Good

Back aboard the positivity train, Child of Light has some neat progression systems. When I say progression systems, I’m talking about the anything you use to customize and upgrade your character. Most commonly this takes the form of both leveling up and earning new equipment.

For leveling up, Child of Light offers us skill trees. Each character has three paths to go down upon level up. It’s a fairly basic system, but having choice at all in a short indie RPG is much appreciated. And although the regular stat bonuses down each path are negligible, the new skills you earn are anything but. There are 3 ranks of every character-specific skill, as well as their basic attack and guard command. The differences between these are so dramatic that their final upgrades are almost double the damage of those prior. They’re significant enough that they definitely have an effect on what moves you use and therefore the strategy you build.

This image has no bearing on anything, I’m just using up the last of the pretty screenshots I found.

On the equipment side of things, Child of Light has the oculi system. Oculi are little crystals that come in three primary colors. Combining different colors creates new oculi, and combing similar colored oculi creates higher ranked ones. Each color of oculi has different effects when equipped in a party member’s weapon slot, armor slot or accessory slot. For example, the basic ruby oculi gives your attack fire damage when equipped as a weapon, grants fire resistance when equipped as armor, and gives bonus HP when equipped as an accessory.

I like oculi because they’re simple to understand but offer a fair number of possible combinations. The fact that each piece of equipment can do one of three things also means that the chances of something being useless are drastically reduced. Even better, since any and all equipment can be combined and items are all percentage-based, every chest you open is intrinsically valuable. Some are more exciting rewards than others, but other RPGs often suffer from 80-90% of the gear you find ending up as vendor trash or stockpiles forgotten until long after they’re useful. Oculi can always be traded up for something better.

That said, these gems certainly aren’t perfect. Which brings me to...

Progression: The Bad

Oculi are fun to mess with and hard to mess up. But this is part of the reason they’re ultimately shallow. There are only 10 types of oculi in the game total. You’ll spend an enjoyable 15-20 minutes early on experimenting and finding low-level versions of each type. And suddenly, there’s all the strategy they’ll ever offer, right there on the table. There are a couple rare types, and switching things out to accommodate new party combinations extends their strategic depth a little. But this too is undermined by the fact that oculi effects too small.

For example, there’s an oculi that offers a physical defense bonus. The lowest rank raises it by 5% and the highest by 25%. The changes are so minor that you’ll need to strap on max-level gear to ever see a noticeable difference in combat. I was also frustrated to find that many effects were luck-based, others were circumstantial, and some were both. (An example of this is a dodge chance only active when your HP is critical). Combined with the many elemental effects, I found the pool of meaningful character choices here positively miniscule. They’re a neat, tidy system that works for a short game. But they’re undeniably shallow in the long run.

The skill trees face a similar fate. Choosing between 3 straight lines is restrictive enough, but a great deal of what’s on those lines is irrelevant. The stat boosts that make up the majority of your skill points are a complete non-choice. The boosts are scattered throughout multiple stats and small enough to be totally meaningless. Meanwhile, though it’s neat that skill upgrades are drastic and noticeable, it means that spreading points around is a bad idea. Optimally speaking, you choose one specialization based on skills you like and stick with it. By the end of the game I was over halfway through all known skills anyway, so it isn’t as though this is something with an appreciable difference on multiple playthroughs.

Wow, look at all the choices! That is to say: three. There are three choices. And by the end of the game you’ll have two of them.

This was never destined to be a great leveling system. It’s an idea that many, many games have done before in grander or stranger fashion. Yet even with the exact same system, it could’ve been at least a little more interesting. All they had to do was make more branching paths, separate stats more, and make better use of skill costs. Did I mention that different skills cost different amounts of points? Sorry, I must’ve forgotten. In my defense, so did the game. Only the last few skills of each path cost 2 points instead of 1. This seems like a waste to me. They could’ve used increasing costs to encourage less specialization. It would’ve let them move things onto more branches while keeping things balanced.

But ultimately, my thoughts on the progression are more subdued than the combat. The combat in Child of Light is excellent, but has some things that drive me completely insane. The progression in Child of Light is nice, but has some things that bother me a bit. Things crank out to a net positive amongst it all, but there were a lot of stumbling blocks on the path to perfection.

And that’s something that can be said for Child of Light as a whole. The art is astoundingly gorgeous, the music hauntingly beautiful, out-of-combat gameplay is average and the writing is fairly lackluster. The end result is a game that I most definitely enjoyed, and you might well too. But it’ll never hit my list of all-time favorites. If you see it on sale or even otherwise for RPG fans (it’s only $15 full price anyway), I’d recommend picking it up. It’s a fun, engaging, and frequently beautiful experience, even if its overall depth is a bit...light.

Eh? Get it? Light?

Because the title of the game is Child of Light?


Yeah I had no clue how to end this one.

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